Ralph Ellison's Battle Royal
Length: 1262 words (3.6 double-spaced pages)
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"Battle Royal", a short story by Ralph Ellison, written in 1952. It is a story about a young black man, who has recently graduated high school. He lives in the south and is invited to give a speech at a gathering of the towns leading white citizens. Where he was told to take part in a battle royal, with nine other black men. After the fight and the speech he was awarded with a calfskin brief case and a scholarship to the state college for Negros.
On his grandfather's deathbed, his grandfather told his father to "keep up the good fight". "Our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days", "live with your head in the lions mouth". His parents tell him to forget what his grandfather said. This really gets to him; he does not know what to do. His grandfather sees life differently then he and his parents do. He does not understand his grandfather's words. He thinks his grandfather's words are a curse. He goes to the smoker to deliverer his speech, in hopes to win to win approval from the affluent men in town and a possibility to open doors for his future.
At the smoker, where some of the most important men in town are "quite tipsy", belligerent and out of control. When he gets in the ballroom there is a naked girl dancing. He wants her and at the same time wants her to go away, "to caress her and destroy her". The black boys who were to take part in the battle were humiliated, some passed out, others pleaded to go home. But the white men paid no attention. The white men end up attacking the girl, who is described as having the same terror and fear in her eyes as the black boys.
Once the girl escapes the black boys get in the boxing ring and are blindfolded for the battle royal. When the fight starts he stumbles around the ring like a drunken baby. He is bleeding from the nose and mouth, and cannot tell if his body is covered in blood or sweat. The room is filled with cigar smoke and angry drunk men yelling at the black boys to hurt each other. This sounds like a true nightmare, he cannot hear, see, or smell.
To make things worse nine other guys are punching him at random. It is complete anarchy. He understands his grandfathers word " our world is a war" these white men have no regard for the feelings or emotions of these young blacks men. These young men must fight this war if they are ever to leave this battlefield. The hard lesson to learn here is that each man has to fight his own battle, concur his own hill. We all have our strength and talents that we use to elevate our social positions. We just have to figure out what it is and fine tune in it in order to achieve our objective.
He is one of the last two left in the ring, which means, the other guy and him have to fight each other for the championship. He did not want to fight in the first place, if he knew he could have quit in the first fight he would have. Now he is fighting one of the biggest guys there. He try's to reason with the other guy, "Fake like I knocked you out, you can have the prize". He even try's to pay his opponent, with no luck, only making his opponent gets anger. What could have been his only alie is his biggest obstacle. He is distracted during the fight thinking about the speech, because, that is where his strength is and he really wants to do a great job. We see the young man focused on his strength and developing a plan. He knows he cannot fight and doesn't want to fight, but he can and does want to address the white men with his speech. During the fight all he can think about is giving his speech. He thinks the men who are making him fight are the one's who can truly judge his intellect. This is where he will get his validation, the honor that will really matter to him.
After he looses the fight, the with men make all the black boys pick their payment up off an electrified rug, to further embarrass and humiliate the black boys. The white men eventually start throwing the black boys on the rug to see them dance in pain. He describes the pain, "My back felt like it had been beaten with wires." More testimony or the war his grand father was talking about. A façade his grandfather was forced to accept in life, but didn't like. His grandfather never found away out or around the system, but his grand son is doing just that everything. Which is what the grandfather meant when he said he had been a traitor his whole life. He was forced to live as someone he wasn't, and he never found away out of it. His grandson is trying to find his authentic self.
The white men give him their attention so that he can present his speech. He is concerned that the fight and prior events in the even might work against his speech; moreover, he was beaten, bloody, exhausted, and having trouble speaking, because, of all the blood in his mouth. He finds his stride and pours his heart and sole into his presentation "I spoke automatically and with such fevor that I did not realize that the men were still talking and laughing until my dry mouth filling up with blood from the cut almost strangled me." He speaks louder in spite of the pain, wanting to ensure that the few people listing could hear him. He hopes that to pass some kind of message on. The men do not give him a break; they yell at him talk and laugh with each other. At one point in the speech he says "social equality", the men stop him, them make him rephrase what he had said. Even though they are praising him, he has to remember his place.
His grandfather was trying to tell him that society would always battle him and his race and try to prevent them from rising socially. He believes that individual victory isn't a societal option; it's an individual choice.
When he is done giving his speech the superintendent came up, while the audience gives a thunderous applause. The superintendent gives him a calfskin briefcase, a scholarship to the state college for Negros. He is told that one day he will lead his people to the right path. Feeling like he has beaten his grandfather's curse he goes home.
The grandfather's words "Our world is a war" became very clear as the young man set out to win a scholarship to a state college. He learns that it is an individual battle that can be won with a great deal of fortitude and honor. He learns that he can improve his life if he is willing to do what it takes. Honor isn't something we wait for society or some individual to give us, it some we we achieve and develop from within.